By Maik Grossekathöfer
With his blow-dried gray hair and pale skin, England's national soccer team manager, Roy Hodgson, looks like he could be a Tory MP in the House of Commons. On the third day of the 2012 European Football Championship, Hodgson was at the podium in the catacombs beneath Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine, when a reporter posed a hard-hitting question: Is England still a great soccer nation?
The room grew very quiet. Hodgson paused to take a breath, and then answered with a grin. "We're all very much aware that we've not won anything since 1966, you didn't need to remind me of that. We have a chance, as one of the 16 teams here, to show how good a team we are. I can assure you we'll be doing our best to prove it on the field of play."
Then, on the fourth day of the championship, England managed a 1-1 tie with France. On the eighth day, the team won 3-1 against Sweden. When the final whistle blew in Kiev, Hodgson tromped out to the stands, one hand shoved in his pocket, and gave the crowd a bow. Then he offered his consolation to the losers.
No one was expecting that.
The English lay claim to having invented this sport, and the ignominy of having won only a single major title gnaws at the nation's soul. But this is the first time the "Three Lions" have arrived at a European Championship without being dogged by the expectation that anything short of taking home the cup amounts to a betrayal of the team's heritage. This time, it was clear early on that there would be no cup for England.
Mocking the Manager
The team's preparations for the Euro 2012 could have aired as a BBC soap opera. It started in fall 2011, when John Terry, center back for FC Chelsea, was accused of using a racial slur against Anton Ferdinand, a defender for the Queens Park Rangers and the brother of Rio Ferdinand, a former national team player and center back for Manchester United. The Football Association, which oversees the sport in England, stripped Terry of his position as national team captain. The national team manager, Fabio Capello from Italy, then resigned. It was mid-February at this point, and England's national team was without a manager.
There was a clear desire for the new manager to be English. And although there were four English-born managers working in the Premier League at that point, everyone -- including players, officials, journalists and fans -- seemed to agree there was only one real contender: Harry Redknapp, the man who turned Tottenham Hotspur into a top team, a man known as a tough character, as English as Franz Beckenbauer is Bavarian.
Though time was running short, the association took three months to conduct its search, and when the verdict finally came, it wasn't the preferred candidate after all. Instead, the new manager was Hodgson, a man who has little in common with Redknapp, beyond sharing the same year of birth, 1947. Hodgson speaks six languages, reads Stefan Zweig and likes good wine. He's not considered a visionary manager, but someone who runs a dry, technocratic regime.
There are two reasons the Football Association went with Hodgson. First, the association is short on cash, and Hodgson came cheap. Redknapp would have had to be bought out of his contract with Tottenham, while Hodgson could be taken from West Bromwich Albion without compensation. The second reason is Hodgson's international experience, having served as national team manager in Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Finland.
In England, soccer is seen as part of the "lad culture," the subculture of guys who like to have a pint down at the pub, and want to see real men on the soccer field, not aesthetes. The day after Hodgson's appointment, London's tabloids overflowed with scorn. The Daily Mail called him "Mr. Average," suggesting that he "bears an uncanny likeness to owls." The Sun mocked Hodgson's difficulty pronouncing the sound "r," calling him "Woy."
The Curse of the Premier League
But some suspect the appointment is the result of careful calculation. "It was a clever move, choosing Hodgson rather than the man the people wanted," says Jonathan Grix, a professor of sport politics and policy at the University of Birmingham. "It's a strategy on the part of the association, intended to lower expectations."
The new manager had just six weeks to prepare his team for the European Championship. Five of the national team's 11 core players were out with injuries, including midfielder Frank Lampard from FC Chelsea. Hodgson canceled a planned training camp in Málaga at the last minute, saying it was more important that his players be well-rested. Striker Wayne Rooney used the trip for a quick trip to Las Vegas.
The resulting team may well be the weakest side England has ever sent to an international competition. This is the curse of the Premier League, the world's most commercialized soccer league. Its clubs belong to Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs, Indian chicken barons and American hedge fund managers. It's a business worth billions, with ruthless competition for these coveted positions.
As a result, no other European league has so many foreign players under contract. This past season, just one in three professional players in England was English, and most members of the national team are not actually the top players back in their own clubs. The national team's third goalkeeper most recently played for Cheltenham Town -- in the fourth division.
The English team has set up shop for Euro 2012 in Krakow, the secret capital of the tournament, where the Dutch and Italian teams have also established their bases. Fans gather at the Main Market Square in Krakow's old town, between St. Mary's Basilica and the Cloth Hall, and take to the city's bars, sidewalk cafés and strip clubs, singing and shouting. Horse-drawn carriages clatter through the narrow streets, and tourists and locals alike attend outdoor church services. The city's traditional trumpet call sounds over the rooftops every hour on the hour.
The English national team is staying just a stone's throw from all this commotion, at Hotel Stary, just off the main square. From morning to night, autograph hunters and photographers hang around outside, kept at bay by barriers and armed police. It's not the easiest place to find a bit of peace. The hotel wasn't Hodgson's choice, but one Capello chose before his resignation.
Two years ago, at the World Cup in South Africa, the English national team's base was far from the main action, which wasn't ideal either, since the remote location easily led to cabin fever. In Krakow, the team's spokesperson says, all the players are trying to be "good tourists."
Yet the English team hasn't even managed to pull that off properly. When Hodgson and six of his players visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and former concentration camp, they had the memorial site cleared before they got out of their bus, made their silent rounds, appeared to be moved and lit a candle. Two days before, the Italian team had simply mingled with other visitors at the site.
The only English player who nearly always greets fans, waves and signs autographs is none other than John Terry. He has a court date set for week after the championship, where he'll have answer to the accusations concerning the incident with Anton Ferdinand. He has denied the accusations and declines to comment on the matter, of course. Nor has he said anything about Anton's brother Rio Ferdinand, the most noticeably absent English player here, the phantom of England's Euro 2012 opera.
Despite Ferdinand's previous 81 games with the Three Lions, Hodgson passed over him this time, citing "football reasons" for the decision. No one is buying that logic, though -- the assumption is that Hodgson simply wanted to keep the peace on a team that includes Terry.
This Tuesday, the 12th day of the championship, England played against host country Ukraine for a 1-0 win, with striker Wayne Rooney allowed back on the field after a two-game suspension. Rooney is Hodgson's trump card, his last world-class player.
The win against Ukraine puts England in the quarter-finals, but only the most die-hard optimists believe the team will be able to take it further than that. They have lost their nerve at crucial moments too often in the past. Six times between 1990 and 2006, England had games that came down to penalty shootouts, and five times the team failed.
It seems the Polish groundskeeper for the English team's practice field in Krakow is familiar with these dramas, which have become a fixture of English soccer legend. When the team went out to practice recently in Krakow, they found the penalty spot had simply been left off the pitch.
Roy Hodgson, it was later heard, was not amused.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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